Hard-bottom communities in the southwestern Baltic Sea: spatial and temporal drivers of richness and community structure

In an era of biodiversity loss caused by anthropogenic impacts, it appears essential to improve our understanding of how ecological filters interact with regional species pools, in order to obtain valuable information on the process of community assembly as well as for biodiversity conservation. Especially in the Baltic Sea, which is characterized by strong environmental gradients and far reaching human-mediated pressures, baseline information provided by monitoring approaches are needed to disentangle community shifts from natural background variability. In the frame of this doctoral thesis, the role of ecological filters on the richness and community structure of hard-bottom assemblages in the southwestern Baltic Sea was investigated and the variability of important environmental drivers described. In the southwestern Baltic Sea, hard-bottom communities are mainly found on boulders and stones left by the last glaciation. The characteristics of these substrates are thought as an important driver of the benthic assemblages living in these boulder fields. Thus, the relationship between geological and biological diversity was examined at the local and regional scale. In a multidisciplinary approach, geological seafloor mappings were combined with biological samplings of hard-bottom communities. At the local scale, the size of boulders was found to positively correlate with taxonomic and functional richness, and negatively correlate with the β diversity of the communities. At the regional scale, differences in taxonomic community composition and β diversity were suggested to be the result of site-specific factors like boulder densities and sediment distribution. Whether of natural or anthropogenic origin, the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea are subject to strong environmental fluctuations, sometimes within short timeframes. Temporally highly resolved in-situ measurements of important water parameters can therefore help to understand the environmental dynamics biological communities are facing in coastal waters. Thus, a monitoring network along the southwestern Baltic coast was established, to measure temperature, salinity and oxygen concentration at 10 min interval as well as nutrient concentrations twice a month. The obtained recordings revealed strong temporal and spatial variabilities, highlighting the need to consider such fluctuations in experimental scenarios, as predictors of biodiversity patterns or within environmental assessments. Long-term records of community composition are crucial to distinguish directional regime shifts from random fluctuations. The monitoring of hard-bottom communities established on standardized settlement panels over a period of 11 years showed regional differences in community development. Multivariate analyses revealed the decline of the foundational species Mytilus sp. to be responsible for the observed community changes over time. In a modeling approach, the decline was explained by changes in sea surface temperature, current speed and chlorophyll a content. Moreover, since the mussels recovered only in stations of Lübeck Bight, regional factors like limitations in dispersal and population connectivity were suggested as significant driving forces. To summarize, this doctoral project demonstrated the effects and variabilities of ecological filters in hard-bottom communities of the southwestern Baltic Sea. In all studies, monitoring approaches were of central importance to detect the presented patterns, underlining the strategic need of these efforts in order to improve our understanding of community assembly and persistence, in times when biodiversity management is more vital than ever.


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